Back in the fall of 2013, a windstorm took down a stately old sugar maple on some acreage we own in Dorchester, NH. I didn’t have a chainsaw just then, so I let the fallen tree rest and dry out for more than a year before cutting it up for firewood. The past few weekends I’ve been at the task, sawing rounds off the trunk and the larger branches, and it’s a beast of a job. The tree, maybe 150 years old, is four feet in diameter at its thickest, and the wood, now nicely dried out, is hard as stone. (It burns great, though.)
While I work the old tree on a chilly gray afternoon, I like to think about the delicious stew my wife Cindy makes on cold days, a hearty concoction she calls “cowboy bean.” It’s amazing how thoughts of good, hot food can make sawing rounds of heavy trunk-wood in an icy, biting wind much easier, especially when those thoughts include a wine that is one of my favorites. For there’s nothing better with cowboy bean stew than a great big syrah.
Syrah is the basis for the elegant, complex red wines of the northern Rhône region in France. It can also be made into a fruitier, much simpler wine, as cheap shiraz (as syrah is called there) from Australia demonstrates. In the United States, syrah (not to be confused with petite sirah, which is a different grape altogether) tends to be denser than light Australian shiraz but is usually not as multi-dimensional as the best Rhônes.
There are exceptions, though. My favorite American syrahs come from Washington state, particularly the Walla Walla Valley. There, the hot, dry summers and cold, sometimes bitter, winters and the rocky, volcanic soils stress syrah vines just enough to concentrate an abundance of flavors into the grapes. Indeed, the region has attracted several French-born vignerons in addition to a new generation of young winemakers. The highest-end Walla Walla syrahs — those from Cayuse, Spring Valley, Sleight of Hand, Trust Cellars, Long Shadows and SYZYGY, among others — are all but impossible to find in the eastern U.S. outside of a tiny handful of exclusive restaurants, though it’s very much worth trying to get on mailing lists for these wines. However, excellent Washington syrah is widely available under the Columbia Crest label, and the New Hampshire State Liquor store wine list includes terrific Walla Walla syrah from K Vintners and Charles Smith.
This isn’t to say other regions don’t produce fine syrah. Randall Grahm, the original “Rhone Ranger,” began growing Rhone varietals, including syrah, in California north of Santa Cruz back in the 1980s. His winery, Bonny Doon, makes a very good syrah called “Pousseur” that’s on the NH State Liquor list. In addition to Santa Cruz and Bonny Doon syrahs, I’ve tasted good syrahs from the Sierra Foothills and the Paso Robles area in California and the northern Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Not to forget, of course, syrah’s ancestral home, the Rhône Valley in southeastern France, which produces some of the finest wines in the world. Syrah has been grown there for wine for 2,500 years, and across the millennia the French vignerons have learned a thing or two about how to make great wine from this wonderful grape. If you see the word “Cornas” in large type on the label of a French wine, snap it up. That sub-region of the northern Rhône produces, arguably, the best syrah anywhere. With Cornas in your glass, you are in for a truly special wine experience. This beautiful wine would certainly pair well with Cindy’s cowboy bean stew. Even a Frenchman might say “Mon Dieu!” to the match while a maplewood fire warmed the room.